The Best Guitar for Fingerstyle

Discussions of guitars and guitar styles have gone on for so long they’ve probably contributed to global warming. But for guitarists, this is just the kind of discussion we’ll never finish.

The question of which guitars are best for fingerstyle is one of these eternal subjects, and as always, with so many variables, it ultimately comes down to personal preference. But even though fingerstyle applies to many different playing styles, there are some things that are pretty straight forward. For example, Classical Guitar or Flamenco are ‘fingerstyle’ and for obvious reasons, best suited to nylon strings. Folk Blues is also fingerstyle and sounds best on steel strings. This doesn’t mean you can’t get some blues out of a nylon-string, but have you ever tried to play flamenco on a steel-string? Ouch.

best-guitar-for-fingerstyleLets go over a few of the other factors that distinguish a good fingerstyle guitar. Number one is a harder wood for the back and sides, mahogany being the frequent choice, often on a smaller body guitar. Some harder rosewoods are touted, but here, it starts being like trying to tell the difference between five different zinfandels. The same goes for distinguishing the effect of a harder spruce for the top, can you really hear it? Or don’t you, in fact, just feel it when it’s right for you? For me it comes down to a guitar that rings out, but doesn’t resonate to where the overtones are washing over each other and drowning out the overtones of the next notes. And mahogany does that well. This means that comparing the fingerstyle guitar you’re interested in with a mahogany guitar is a good idea. Get them to take out that nice, vintage mahogany-back guitar and A/B it with the ones you can actually afford. You might realize one of those really holds up, even if it’s got different wood like koa or another more exotic species. Other woods have their own characteristics and can work well with fingerpicking and fingerstyle jazz. Maple, with a brighter sound, has great attack, a sharper cut off to the decay, like mahogany, and it’s own special ‘zing’.

The number two issue, especially when it comes to intricate, folk blues fingerpicking, is a slightly wider neck, a full 1 3/4″ instead of the 1 11/16″ of most modern folk guitars. This little bit of extra room, as well as more space between the strings at the bridge, lets you ‘select’ notes with more precision. For faster pieces with lots of movement in the left hand, this will slow you down if you’re not used to it, but for really crystalline, intricate picking, it is the way to go.

A third factor is the length of the neck. I prefer a short scale guitar (24.9) because with a driving thumb on a folk blues number, I’ll tend to overdrive the strings on a long scale guitar (25.4,) especially if I’m using a lot of chords and open strings on the treble. The shorter scale makes bends easier, and has a different dynamic or ‘punch’ than the higher tension of longer scale guitars. .

All kinds of fingerstyle guitar music is being created on many different guitars; there are incredible, sweet OM guitars I’d love to get my hands on. And an acoustic electric dreadnought is the right choice for a specific player. But really folks, let’s be serious, there’s nothing else like the combination of a 000 series guitar with a mahogany back, playing some old-school, country blues.

About Mokai

Fingerpicking Fool

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4 Responses to The Best Guitar for Fingerstyle

  1. Theo April 18, 2009 at 10:30 PM #

    Mokai,

    For fingerstyle I like guitars that are really “punchy” and responsive, and for this reason I like Mahogany, in addition I like the way the tones are usually clear and well balanced on a nice guitar.

    But do you really think shorter scale makes the guitar stand up better to harder playing without getting overdriven? I’m wondering about this and was speaking with a great luthier for fingerstyle, Robert Ehlers, who confirmed to me that at a given diameter string, let’s say 12 mm on 1st string, the tension will be higher on a (normal) 25.4″ scale than on a (short) 24.9″ scale guitar.

    To give an example from flatpicking, Django apparently preferred a guitar with a longer scale because it allowed him to use thinner strings while still having a high string tension. This was good for soloing in that style. What about folk blues fingerpicking?

    Most players seem to use light gauge strings. If we took two guitars that were identical (lets say 000s with Mahogany back and sides) except for the scale length, and put the same strings on them (let’s say light gauge Daddario Phosphor Bronze), you are saying the short scale guitar would be more punchy and less likely to be overdriven. For me those statements suggest “higher string tension”. But we just saw that a normal scale length will have higher string tension. So what am I missing?
    - Theo

  2. Theo April 19, 2009 at 2:11 PM #

    I compared a short scale and normal scale length guitars today and found something really interesting that seems to confirm your view. The short scale guitar is nice and chunky in the basses and wasn’t overdriven even when playing hard with a thick flatpick.

    Both guitars were Santa Cruz and both had D’addario lights. Trouble is their different in other ways than scale length:
    - the short scale guitar is a slope shoulder D, with sitka spruce top and maple back and sides
    - the normal scale guitar is a Tony Rice custom D with red spruce top Mahogany back and sides

    In other words what is it about that short sale guitar I like so much? Is it from the scale length, the slope shoulder, the sitka, the maple???

    And if I were asking someone to make me a guitar that had that great quality of not getting overdriven with light strings even when played with a flatpick, what should I aks for?

    Rob Ehlers says it’s primarily about the bracing, not the scale length.

  3. Mokai April 19, 2009 at 10:03 PM #

    Theo, thanks for commenting. This is exactly the kind of discussion I would like to see here. Maybe we can attract some real experts to answer these questions. Of course, there are good forums to go ask these questions on, but not always frequented by fingerstyle folk. As to my own opinions, they are based on an artist’s ‘feel’. What feels right to me is what I consider ‘right’.

    You mention Ehlers — wow, that elicits images of really perfect (expensive,) guitars. I get a Pavlovian thing going here, where I start drooling at the mention of the name, no guitar in sight.

    I’m actually surprised that the longer scale means more tension…I don’t get physics, but while higher tension would seems to mean more punch, it seems to work the opposite. Seems logical that the shorter string would be harder to bend, and the longer string would have more give. Maybe that’s not what I am experiencing when I play a longer scale guitar. In my unscientific, guitarist brain, it seems that the longer string has more length to vibrate on, and I actually ‘hear’ what I imagine is an extra wobble in the elliptical vibration of the string, esp on open strings, that generates an extra cascade of (unwanted) overtones, which I think of as the guitar being ‘overdriven.’ This could be completely subjective and possibly hilarious to a physicist or luthier. It wouldn’t be the first time a guitar tech was confused by my ‘artistic’ perceptions. But such is the nature of the artist, it doesn’t matter what ‘is’ — it matters what I am feeling.

    Before I really was paying attention enough about different scale guitars (only been playing my whole life,) I purchased a new guitar because I wanted an acoustic-electric for use on stage. I fell in love with a pretty little Koa bodied number by a well respected guitar maker who shall remain nameless (starts with a ‘T’,) not realizing it was a longer scale (it’s not like the salesmen in the guitar store ask you what scale length you’re looking for). I couldn’t figure out why things weren’t working out until I realized I had played short scale guitars my whole life. So maybe this issue has to do more with my right hand technique than the objective characteristics of guitars.

    I have a pretty strong right hand, so I can make any guitar buzz somewhere on the neck, driving guitar techs mad, but I find I can let loose and still have much more control of dynamics and how my open strings ring on a shorter scale guitar.

    Mokai

  4. Mokai April 20, 2009 at 10:24 PM #

    Oh man, now you’re talking about Santa Cruz guitars, which also have a Pavlovian effect, not confined to salivary glands. Would love to see (handle) your collection, man.

    I do think that in general, longer scale guitars are better for someone with a lighter touch. Seems a lot of guys (people) playing the two-hand tapping and other modern fingerstyle techniques are playing on OM guitars with a longer scale. Maybe we can get one of them to comment.

    But, as you point out, it’s not just the scale length. This is just one factor that, IMO makes for a better guitar specifically for blues fingerstyle, where you’re going for more dynamics and driving energy than some of the more ‘new-agey’ — for lack of a better term — styles, often modal and tuned open. But, for having sustain without being susceptible to being overdriven, I think the bracing and the hardness of the wood has a lot to do with it; maple and mahogany would be pretty similar in this case, as far as the issue of ‘overdriving’. As far as dreadnought guitars go, I tend to dismiss them as ‘folk-rock’ or ‘bluegrass’ guitars, but there’s no reason such well-made guitars couldn’t be made to do just about anything you desire (and more.) That Tony Rice sounds sick, long-scale or no, and the slope shoulder sitka (what model?) sounds like a dream. But I’m skeptical about being able to really ‘hear’ the difference between the red spruce and the sitka without being a trained luthier, as far as the hardness of the wood affecting how overdriven the sound gets. It’s more about ‘feel’. So, it may really come down to the shorter scale being the big difference between the ‘feel’ of these 2 guitars.

    I do confess — and I’d love to hear some other opinions — that the shorter scale has a more ‘masculine’ feel and the shorter scale has a more ‘feminine’ flavor as far as the music they inspire.

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